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Definition: Nahuatl from Philip's Encyclopedia

Native American language of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family of S USA and Central America. Formerly the language of the Aztecs, today it is spoken by about one million people, mostly in Mexico.

Summary Article: NAHUATL
from Dictionary of Languages


Nahuatl is the most important member of the Uto-Aztecan family, now believed by some to belong to a larger family of AMERIND LANGUAGES. Nahuatl was the language of the powerful Aztec civilisation so suddenly overwhelmed by the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Nahuatl is still a major language of Mexico, a country proud of its Aztec inheritance – but Spanish is the only official language of the country.

Among the many languages of central Mexico it can be surprisingly difficult to make links with civilisations of the past. Who exactly were the Toltecs of ad 850 to 1100, masters of the Valley of Mexico in pre-Aztec times? The Aztec rulers, who took power after them, were invaders from the north: but it is unlikely that the Nahuatl language arrived only with the Aztecs. More probably the Toltec civilisation itself had already been Nahua-speaking. The fame of the Toltec capital, Tula, destroyed about ad 1200, seems to survive in the legendary mother-city of Tollân known from 15th-century Nahuatl manuscripts.

The Toltecs are known to have sent colonies southwards around ad 900. Pipil is the language of this southern migration. Between them, Toltecs and Pipils destroyed much of classical Maya civilisation in their passing.

The Aztec intruders were in the Valley of Mexico in 1256. They founded Tenochtitlán in 1325, and began to expand their empire in the 15th century. Although the valley remained highly fragmented, linguistically and politically, the Aztecs soon dominated it – and were quickly informed of the first Spanish landings, far to the east, in 1517.

Nahuatl, though little known to the mass of speakers of other Mexican languages, had spread widely in the previous two centuries and was by now the most useful long distance language in the region, essential to Spanish conquerors. There was certainly already some bilingualism in Nahuatl. That is why, even after the conquest, Nahuatl loanwords (as well as Spanish loanwords) multiplied in other Mexican languages: loanwords such as Nahuatl tentzu ‘goat’, Totontepec teents, Tzotzil tentsun. Enjoying Spanish favour, Nahuatl continued to spread while some other languages died away. It even became a kind of official language, recognised as such in a royal ordinance of 1570, though even then it was seen as a stepping-stone to Catholic conversion and eventual Hispanicisation.

From 1770 onwards, education in Mexico officially had to be in Spanish – but, after all, the reach of education was limited, and the position of Nahuatl was still not seriously undermined. The future of the language, two centuries later, is far from clear. In practice, the administration always favours Spanish and, crucially perhaps, Spanish is demanded by the new population mobility of the late 20th century.

Already at the Spanish conquest Nahuatl was being recorded in writing: in sculpted inscriptions, usually brief; and in picture books, which acted as a mnemonic for the reciter of orally remembered texts. The Spaniards destroyed many of these picture books, but the more enlightened among them encouraged the making of others, a record of Nahuatl beliefs and culture, useful (at the very least) to priests who wished to understand the people whom they planned to convert to Christianity.

Certain manuscripts offer special help in understanding classical Nahuatl pictographic writing. Compiled under Spanish domination, Codex Mendoza is ‘bilingual’. Pictograms of the ancient type, whose meaning would soon be lost, are here accompanied by interpretations in Spanish. This not only helps to explain the individual symbols and their variations. It also shows that they never corresponded to a precise text (which could have been translated into Spanish). Instead, Mexican pictograms stood for a sequence of ideas. Their makers certainly expected them to be read back in Nahuatl or Mixtec. But one who held the key could interpret them in any language. Thus the forgotten maker of Codex Mendoza has assisted modern scholars to reconstruct the key.

Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar active in ‘New Spain’ from 1529 to 1590, gathered information from his Mexican students about their own culture and wrote it down in his ‘General record of matters of New Spain’, which is an encyclopaedia of Aztec religion, astronomy, astrology, economics, daily life, medicine, rhetoric, mineralogy and history. This vast work includes hymns to the Aztec gods, riddles and proverbs, and reproduces selected passages from the old picture books. It survives in two fairly complete versions, in manuscripts at Florence and Madrid.

Some of the pictographic manuscripts are historical, recording – with careful calculation of dates – migrations into the Valley of Mexico, wars between cities, and genealogy. Nahuatl traditional literature included formal speeches of praise and family history, given on public occasions. The manuscripts contain songs and myths: the so-called Mexican Songs include lyrics, war songs, mourning songs, burlesque, drama. It was a literature of great complexity, with certain styles specially belonging to different towns and regions. Poetic language involved metaphor, multiple compounds, parallel expressions, and imagery based on jewels, feathers and flowers.

The range of Nahuatl literature shrank with the Spanish ascendancy; but a genre of Catholic religious plays flourished, and they are still performed in Nahuatl-speaking villages.

At a crossroads of Mexican culture, Nahuatl naturally contains loanwords from other American languages, such as Mixe-Zoque (because the early Olmec civilisation spoke a Mixe-Zoque language): from this source comes nixtamalli ‘maize dough’, a staple food; from Mixe-Zoque, too (proto-Mixe-Zoque *kakawa) comes the Nahuatl word for ‘cacao’ that was eventually borrowed into European languages (e.g. English chocolate, cocoa). Other important loanwords from Nahuatl in European languages include tomato, avocado. For things newly introduced after the conquest, Spanish loanwords in Nahuatl have multiplied: from Spanish naranja comes Nahuatl laxa ‘orange’.

Because of its past importance as a lingua franca, loanwords from Nahuatl are to be found in many of the languages of Mexico, including Tepecano, Cora, Huichol, Tequistlatec, Huastec, Yucatec, Quiché and Cakchiquel. A Nahuatl-Spanish pidgin (see also SPANISH) was once widely used in central America. This is how Nahuatl tequetl ‘work’ came to be borrowed into the Lenca language of distant Guatemala, just as Spanish trabajo ‘work’ was borrowed into other Amerindian languages.

Printing in the New World

The first American printed book (1539) was a bilingual catechism in Spanish and Nahuatl. The bishop of Mexico, Francisco de Zumárraga, had imported a printing press to assist the spread of Christianity. The first Nahuatl grammar, by A. de Olmos, Arte para aprender la lengua mexicana, appeared in 1547.

Trained in Latin grammar, the Spanish-speaking friars who first codified Nahuatl grammar, in the 16th century, were open-minded enough to realise that they had to devise a new terminology for this utterly different tongue. To classify verb forms they introduced terms such as ‘compulsive’ (causative) and ‘applicative’ (benefactitive). The first ten numerals in Nahuatl are ce, ome, yei, nahui, macuilli, chicuace, chicome, chicuei, chicunahui, matlactli. It can be seen that the numbers ‘6’ to ‘9’ are formed on the pattern ‘5 plus 1’, ‘5 plus 2’ and so on.

Uto-Aztecan languages

Nahuatl (or ‘Aztec’) is the only Uto-Aztecan language with a large number of speakers – and the only one which was the vehicle of a great civilisation. The others are scattered across the western United States and northern Mexico.

Nahua dialects are classified according to a particular phonetic trait. The lateral affricate or click, tl, is typical of the central group of dialects, which are thus properly called Nahuatl. Others are known as Nahual and Nahuat. Central Nahuatl is also known as México – language of the Valley of Mexico, after which the great modern city, and the whole nation state of which it is the capital, are both named.

Pipil, once a major language of colonial El Salvador and neighbouring states, is on the verge of extinction: a recent survey gives only twenty elderly speakers, the Pipil ethnic group having adopted Spanish as its mother tongue. Pipil is a Nahua dialect, apparently established as a result of eastward conquests by the Toltecs in the 10th century.

Mayo is the next largest Uto-Aztecan language, spoken by about 50,000 people in Sonora and Sinaloa provinces of Mexico.

Tarahumara also has around 50,000 speakers in Mexico.

Ute, Comanche, Hopi, Shoshone and Northern Paiute are among the thirty remaining Uto-Aztecan languages with no more than a few thousand speakers each. Most are on the way to extinction.

The language of human sacrifice

Emphases on war and human sacrifice are well-known features of pre-Columbian Mexican culture. These ideas seem, from archaeology, to have belonged to the conquering Toltecs, around ad 1000, and to have been learnt from them by peoples such as the Aztecs.

In Codex Magliabechiano, a second ‘bilingual’ manuscript, feast days are described. The Spanish text explains: ‘This picture shows the unspeakable ritual of the Yndians on the day that they sacrificed men to their idols. Then, before the demon called Mictlantecutl, which means ʺLord of the Deadʺ as explained elsewhere, they placed many cooking pots full of the human flesh, and shared it among the nobles and rulers and those who served in the demon's temple, called tlamagatl; and these shared their portions among their friends and families. They say that it tasted as pork tastes now, and this is why they like pork so much.'

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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